This article addresses the development proposal in Shockoe Bottom unveiled by Mayor Jones in November of last year, which has been headlined by a new baseball stadium. A counter opinion article from Don O’Keefe was posted last week. More information about the Shockoe Bottom plan can be found here:
So the mayor wants to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom with a surrounding assortment of oversized structures including an apartment complex, an office building, grocery store and parking garage.
This is a bad idea for dozens of reasons– from scale to traffic congestion to threatening fragile sites that are just beginning to be recognized for their tremendous historical significance. But a quick visual analysis of the site in question reveals how the site could and should be developed.
If you stand in any one of three places– either atop Jefferson Hill Park; or the park-like overlook in the 2100 block of East Grace Street (near the Richmond Hill complex); or on an East Broad Street sidewalk downtown near Monumental Church where the street begins its descent into Shockoe Valley, what expands in front of you is a real valley– a distinctive, low-lying, urban place called Shockoe Bottom.
Shockoe Creek, a once-open waterway than ran through this flood-prone space, now flows underground. The general path of the streambed, however, is reflected in the vein-like railroad tracks and I-95 highway traffic that snake through the valley.
A grand punctuation mark to these traffic lanes is Main Street Station, an early 20th century architectural gem that could well be mistaken for a town hall in northern France. Miraculously, however, it has survived and been gloriously restored to active use as an Amtrak station.
If you look closely, there are other distinctive buildings in the district. Most are diminutive, like Edgar Allan Poe Museum; the Adam Craig house (perhaps once a farm house); and the nation’s oldest masonic hall. The bulk of the building stock in Bottom, however is two- and three-story, brick commercial stock, and Italianate in style. These structures have weathered periodic flooding. And for decades, many of these buildings housed European immigrant families, including many Jews who operated businesses at the sidewalk level and lived above the store.
Then, of course, there are the disturbing ghosts of Shockoe Bottom. While few buildings still stand that offer reminders of the frightful slave trade transacted on these blocks for some 200 years, open spaces thought to have once housed African-American slave auctions, along with graveyards, have recently been excavated.
More cheerfully (although it is under utilized), the 17th Street Farmer’s Market, one of the nation’s oldest open air bazaars, still operates under the distinctive, green tin sheds that were built in the 1980s. The market is a gem of an opportunity in-the-rough.
But much is already happening here. With the James River flood wall, the restoration and adaptive reuse of the old building stock, including many former warehouses, has injected new life into the Bottom with hundreds of apartments, offices, retail, eateries and clubs. And as historic building stock has been rejuvenated, infill construction has followed, placing new structures on long-vacant lots.
So what does Shockoe Bottom need? It’s simple. The valley should continue to develop as economic forces demand. The infrastructure should be tweaked strategically: The market needs (and apparently is getting) a major overhaul. Streets could be repaired and returned cobblestone paving. Sidewalks should be cleaned up and parking decks built in unobtrusive ways. The lowlands where the baseball stadium is envisioned could be turned into passive parks (while retaining the dozen now-threatened, already existing buildings). And get rid of the disfiguring power lines!
Shockoe Valley is an evocative, tightly defined, already lively and irreplaceable American place. Now, with positive development and repopulation occurring, this is not to time to turn it into a massive, multi-year construction site for a project with questionable returns. Certainly, during the past quarter century of historic preservation awareness in our nation, we have learned that a stadium here is not the way to proceed here.